Cesium and strontium capsules are stored in water at the Department of Energy’s Hanford site in Washington State. (U.S. Department of Energy via AP, File)

Cesium and strontium capsules are stored in water at the Department of Energy’s Hanford site in Washington State. (U.S. Department of Energy via AP, File)

Hanford workers put at risk by improper respirator maintenance

Risks could include exposure to chemical wastes. Contractors have taken steps to correct deficiencies.

By Annette Cary / Tri-City Herald

Two Hanford nuclear reservation contractors are not consistently following requirements to maintain respiratory equipment to protect hundreds of workers from inhaling radioactive and other hazardous chemicals, according to a federal report.

The results of an audit by the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General released on Monday found no instances of unmaintained respiratory equipment being released to workers.

However, proper controls were not in place to prevent that from happening at CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co., a Jacobs company, which employs about 1,700 workers, and at Washington River Protection Solutions, the IG audit report said. That Amentum and Atkins company employs about 2,350 workers.

“If even a single respirator is improperly maintained, this has the potential to increase the risk that the worker could (be exposed) to hazards such as beryllium, vapors or chemical wastes,” the IG audit report said. “Therefore, it is essential that workers’ respirators fit properly and are maintained in a clean and serviceable condition.”

In addition, Bechtel National, which employs about 2,900 workers, has an occupational medical provider that had not always fully completed medical evaluations required to determine whether a worker can safely use respirators.

The Hanford nuclear reservation in Eastern Washington state is contaminated from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

Department of Energy contractors at Hanford are required to maintain respirator equipment, including inspections of the respirator battery packs, blowers and tubes that connect the blower to the respirator.

In addition, flow tests are conducted to ensure that workers are getting adequate air flow. Other respirator maintenance can include calibration, visual inspection, functional test and regulator adjustment.

CH2M

CH2M, which uses respirators for work at the highly contaminated Plutonium Finishing Plant demolition and debris cleanup among other projects, was an average of 63 days late in doing maintenance on an audit sample of 21 respirators.

The maintenance is required every 90 or 180 days, depending on the type of air-purifying respirator.

Brian Vance, the Department of Energy manager at Hanford, said in a response to the Office of Inspector General that CH2M’s equipment tracking schedule does not allow equipment with expired maintenance to be issued for use.

Tank farm contractor

At Washington River Protection Solutions supplied air respirators are critically important to protect against chemical vapors that have sickened workers in the central Hanford site tank farms.

The contractor manages 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste in underground tanks.

Auditors sampled records for eight of the tank farm contractor’s supplied air respirators and found all had been maintained to requirements.

However, a check of its air-purifying respirator records over several years found one on which maintenance was completed 232 days past its due date.

Vance said that maintenance is not done on excess equipment until, and if, it is needed as a measure to save taxpayer money.

The respirators remain in a maintenance shed and unavailable for checkout to workers until maintenance is completed.

However, there is no documented requirement for that, providing no assurance that the practice would continue, according to the audit report.

Vit plant contractor

Bechtel National, unlike the two cleanup contractors called out in the audit report, is a construction contractor building the $17 billion vitrification plant to treat much of the tank waste.

Its construction workers can be required to wear respirators at times to protect against hazardous chemicals, including silica dust and metal fumes.

Under Bechtel’s contract with the Department of Energy, it must follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements to provide medical evaluations to make sure workers can safely wear respirators and maintain those records.

Seizures, claustrophobia, asthma and chronic bronchitis are among potential conditions that are evaluated to ensure worker safety.

The IG audit sampled 18 medical evaluations and found that only four had records that were completed to required standards, according to the report.

“This occurred because Bechtel’s safety and health oversight group did not always provide oversight to its occupational medical provider as closely as necessary to ensure that medical evaluations were completed as contractually required,” the IG audit report said.

All three contractors have taken steps to correct deficiencies identified by the audit.

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